How healthcare, education & government IT are coping with Covid-19

Photo by Chris Montgomery

Covid-19, which has brought about stringent lockdown scenarios globally, has forced organizations across the world to abruptly change the way they work. For enterprises, each with thousands of employees made to Work From Home (WFH), this radical shift has tested IT systems and processes in an unprecedented way while forcing them to rethink management strategies.

In a virtual roundtable hosted by ServiceNow and organized by Jicara Media, senior executives from Singapore’s healthcare, education and government sectors met online to discuss challenges and coping strategies. This discussion presented views ranging from IT management on the frontlines of national healthcare to the adoption of WFH by government, one of the most risk-averse verticals in the world.

Coping with WFH

All the organizations represented have successfully implemented remote working systems and processes, with some having a smoother transition than others.

For global higher education institute INSEAD, the transition was relatively seamless.

Said Choo Tatt Saw, Chief Information Officer at INSEAD, “INSEAD has campuses in Singapore, France, Abu Dhabi and San Francisco. When the crisis hit us, all our staff and faculty had to start working from home. The transition was pretty straightforward for us, because as an organization and as a school, we’re used to using video conferencing for meetings and for collaboration, due to the multiple campuses and the different time zones.”

On the other hand, the healthcare industry, which has had to juggle managing remote working with on-the-ground frontline staff, the situation was slightly trickier.

Bruce Leong, Director, Technology and Strategy at Mount Alvernia Hospital, explained, “When the lockdown was announced, quite a number of back-office people had to work from home, like finance and IT. Our policies do not allow home PCs to access corporate resources, so we had to scramble to set up VPN systems, and acquire more corporate laptops.”

How lockdowns have accelerated digital transformation

All participants agreed that lockdowns have accelerated digital transformation by at least five years, and has forced organizations to scrutinize their IT systems and processes.

For Singapore’s Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), which coordinates the activities of Singapore’s national healthcare institutions, Covid-19 has given various government bodies the opportunity to work together in new and innovative ways.

Said Dr Patrick Chia, Director, Clinical Transformation Services, at IHiS, “Covid has really forced us to try and move innovation at least 5-6 years ahead of time. Ministries are forced to work with one another – MOM, Mindef, MOH, etc. And that, I think, is an opportunity in a way. If this hadn’t come along, we would never have been forced to work at such a pace to get things integrated in terms of processes, in terms of leadership – not just in IT, but in terms of models and duties for care, and in a very precise manner instead of the vague manner we’re used to.”

Leong added that Covid-19 has also made digital transformation easier as it has brought about a mindset change amongst the population.

He explained, “The digitalization effort has been made easier, because everyone is forced to learn computing tools, including not so tech savvy folks in their 50s and 60s. So we’re seeing good uptake on digitalisation awareness and so on. Change management is not easy, in terms of mindset change. A small section of each organization has had some resistance towards technology but Covid-19 has changed their mindsets, and they’re realizing that it’s not that scary after all.”

Exposing the gaps in IT

Although digital transformation is well underway, the process has exposed the gaps and weaknesses in enterprise IT, with participants arguing that enterprise IT has much work to do to reach the level of consumer IT in terms of user experience.

Said Willie Hui, Director, Solution Consulting for Asia at ServiceNow, “The way we work and the experience we get inside an enterprise is way, way different from the experience we get in our personal lives. During this crisis, this is something you can see very clearly. It’s easy for me to use my mobile phone to get groceries, order lunch, or book a cab. However, this type of experience normally does not happen inside an enterprise. A lot of the work is probably manual, spreadsheet-driven, involving a lot of emails and phone calls without a guarantee that it will get done.”

A C-level IT executive from a Singapore government ministry pointed out that IT itself needs to undergo transformation in order to enable digital transformation within the rest of the organization.

He said, “The problem is, all this needs an enabler, which is usually IT. But then the IT has to undergo transformation, especially when it comes to inter-government agencies with different standards of IT support. How can we connect them? Do we put all of them in one basket and join them on a single network?”

Chia warned that failing to solve such problems and processes might be dangerous in the long-term, especially for the healthcare sector.

“In my areas, I think we fall very short in terms of how technologies are being deployed. There’s very little integration with our Electronic Medical Record systems, our workflow systems, etc. It causes a lot of unnecessary manual-to-electronic integration, which will cause many problems, even medical or legal, down the line,” he commented.

Remote working, productivity and mental health

In spite of its many challenges, remote working has surprisingly maintained workplace productivity, as attested to by surveys conducted within INSEAD.

Said Saw, “In terms of productivity, interestingly, we have been doing polls with all the staff and managers every month or so. At least ⅔ of the managers and staff felt that they are as effective working from home, in terms of delivering what they need to.”

However, other issues have emerged, with some employees struggling to create a conducive work environment within their homes. The participants then raised the topic of mental health and psychological fears, such as that of employees losing their jobs.

Said the representative from government, “Some people work longer than the 8 hours they usually put in, while some others are not really contributing much because of the nature of their jobs. That forms an imbalance. And those that aren’t contributing a lot actually get into a bit of psychological fear that their job may be on the line. The fear is that the organization will think, ‘If I don’t need you, I just need a core team, do I need to scale down?’ I’ve been wondering how to make people feel at ease when they work from home.”

Furthermore, especially within the healthcare sector, remote working solutions such as telecommuting are simply unable to replace physical interactions, and might cause fatigue in the long run.

Chia explained, “WFH causes a different type of fatigue. Having one Zoom meeting after another, without having any real interactions with people, is probably mentally not so conducive. And sometimes — especially in my area where I have to deal with doctors on the ground — people, particularly in a large group, tend to get lost in the online discussions.

“Also, it has really changed the way we work, especially for the clinicians on the ground who are now learning how to do teleconsultations. Most of the time, teleconsultation can’t replace physical interactions. So that has been some of the biggest challenges and it’s forced healthcare in general to try and figure out how to do things in a safe, yet practical way.”

Crafting a new, long-term strategy

All participants agreed that Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the way we work, and that new long-term strategies are needed for the post-Covid-19 world.

Saw said, “Just like any other university, one of our biggest challenges is the teaching and the delivery of all the classes. We had to go online in a very short time. The question for us is, how long can we sustain this? In the beginning, the students and participants were quite forgiving, but we know that we need to improve the online delivery in time to come, because I don’t think the students can accept paying a full fee for online delivery, in the long term.

“How do we teach students face-to-face in a teaching space, yet have other students remotely connected, let’s say through Zoom? How do we make sure the remote students are getting the same kind of experience? We are already looking into investing into better live synchronous teaching technology.”

Chia emphasized that the key to securing a digitally-transformed future is to carefully think through new strategies to make sure the process is safe and well-organized.

He concluded, “Technology can be a double-edged sword. We need to take time and step back and figure out, ‘Is this really the way we want to organize things? Is this really the way we want to communicate? Where is the governance around it? Where are the guidelines or rules?’ If we don’t get these in place, it will become a mess.”